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A Beginner’s Guide to Park Chan-wook, the Best Director You’re Not Talking About

How did the Korean filmmaker known for thrillers and bloodbaths end up helming 'The Little Drummer Girl' on AMC?

Of the international auteurs most likely to adapt a John le Carré novel into a miniseries on BBC One and AMC, South Korea’s Park Chan-wook would not only be off the shortlist — he’d be around the last on a long list, too.

For decades, Le Carré (best known for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) was the anti–James Bond, deliberately taking the derring-do out of the espionage game in order to show how power is really exercised behind closed doors. The violence in Le Carré’s spy thrillers tends to originate in the smoke-filled chambers of secret service agencies and safe houses, where plots and counterplots are orchestrated under the blanketing dread of the Cold War. The violence in Park’s Korean thrillers, by contrast, is more explicit: a tongue cut with scissors, the consumption of a live squid or, in one sequence, a bloodbath so extreme that participants are encouraged to wear parkas to keep their clothes clean.

Yet The Little Drummer Girl — Park’s new three-part, six-hour miniseries, premiering on AMC Sunday night — reveals some surprising commonalities between the two.

Park grew up in Seoul under the oppression and brutality of Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorship; the tensions between hostile nations has informed at least two of his movies: 2002’s J.S.A. Joint Security Area, in which an incident between North and South Koreans in the DMZ requires a delicate intervention, and his last feature, 2016’s The Handmaiden, which reworks a story set in Victorian England to accommodate Korea under Japanese rule. Park and Le Carré also have an extraordinary flair for the byzantine, spinning elegant yarns that are filled with deception, surprise and hidden motivations.

For Park to get to a point in his career where he would direct a Le Carré miniseries for television is itself a byzantine plot full of twists and turns; even a film geek well-schooled in his career would have trouble accounting for it. All that is to say, if you’re a newcomer to Park’s work, The Little Drummer Girl may be a strange place to start. It represents, at least on the surface, a massive departure for a director whose name was once synonymous with Asian cinema at its most extreme — both gory and transgressive.

So where to start for the aspiring fan? Here’s a step-by-step beginner’s guide to the director who helped put New Korean Cinema on the map.

Hey, Wait. What’s ‘New Korean Cinema’ Anyway?

In the early 2000s, following a loosening of government restrictions and a rising interest in homegrown blockbusters to compete with Hollywood imports, South Korea burst onto the festival circuit and beyond, introducing the world to a host of new directors. It’s hard to identify a single Korean style, but there’s a common willingness among its filmmakers to experiment in tone, shifting from, say, a serial killer procedural to a slapstick comedy. Even some careers underwent radical tonal shifts, like Kim Ki-duk, who graduated from the fishhook-related perversion of The Isle to the Buddhist tranquility of Spring, Summer, Fall…and Spring, and then retreated once more. Most of the new Korean directors were known for genre filmmaking, like Bong Joon-ho, who broke through with the Spielbergian river monster movie The Host, and Kim Jee-woon, who’s tried his hand at horror (A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil) and the Spaghetti western (I Saw the Devil). There are more introspective directors, too, like Lee Chang-dong, whose more delicate sensibility informs dramas like Secret Sunshine, Poetry, and the recent Cannes favorite Burning.

But Park tracks firmly with the country’s genre filmmakers, turning J.S.A. into a record-smashing commercial hit before sailing off to more idiosyncratic waters.

Step 1: Get Really, Really Into Oldboy (2003).

Park and his Korean cinema contemporaries had already been getting attention in critical circles in the few years before Oldboy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, but when Quentin Tarantino’s jury awarded the Grand Prix (second place, basically) to the film, the floodgates finally burst open. Though the middle film in Park’s loosely associated “Vengeance Trilogy,” Oldboy so perfectly synthesizes all the hallmarks of his work — the baroque architecture of the plotting and cinematography, the shocking spasms of violence, relationships defined by psychosexual bonds and hidden reserves of intense emotion — that it’s best to start here. It’s a good litmus test: Whether or not you can withstand this assault on the senses will determine where you should go next.

The film starts with a Seoul businessman (Choi Min-sik) who wakes up from a drunken bender to find himself locked in a one-room apartment for reasons unknown. Fifteen years later, he’s released, also for reasons unknown. The mysteries of his incarceration and release are answered in the form of a mega-revenge plot that’s rooted in his childhood and laid out like a contraption designed to achieve the cruelest possible outcome. There’s a God metaphor here somewhere — our hero makes choices that don’t necessarily affect a fate that’s been predetermined for him — but mostly there’s a breathtaking series of twists that spin the film further and further into moral darkness. Spike Lee remade the film to compelling but flawed effect in 2013, but the impeccable precision of Park’s storytelling and visual design cannot be replicated, much less the impact of the sequence where Choi turns to the toolkit to hack his way through a hallway of assailants.

Stop. Hammer time.

  • If your reaction to the above sequence is, “Wow, more of that, please,” then move on to Step 2, you sicko.
  • If your reaction is, “That’s a bit more bludgeoning than I can handle. Sex, on the other hand…,” then skip to Step 4.

Step 2: Try Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005)

There’s no crossover between Oldboy and the two films that bookend it in the “Vengeance Trilogy,” Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. Park didn’t intend them as a trilogy, but there’s enough connective tissue between them to justify the packaging of separate films with similar agendas and a gradually amplified body count. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was more cooly received than the other two at the time, but that was before Park’s reputation grew, back when a crime drama this casually gruesome could be safely tucked away in the “Asia Extreme” market.

Seen today, it plays like an accomplished dry run for Oldboy, a complicated story of two men led into conflict by mutual desperation over family tragedies. In one corner, there’s a deaf-mute factory worker (Shin Ha-kyun) who resorts to holding his boss’ daughter for ransom in order to raise money for his sister’s kidney operation. In the other, there’s the boss (Song Kang-ho), who comes after him and his anarchist girlfriend when the kidnapping scheme inevitably goes awry. Beneath Park’s gruesome tale of organ thieving, Achilles slashing and electrocution is an undercurrent of class resentment: Were a line worker not forced to turn to shady black market dealers for a kidney replacement, the entire series of events would not have been set in motion.

By the time Park got around to finishing the trilogy with Lady Vengeance in 2005, he seemed keen to top himself with each successive Grand Guignol bloodbath, but for the first time since J.S.A. — and not the last he turned his attention to women intent on rebuffing their standard gender roles.

When Lee Yeong-ae’s dead-eyed protagonist is greeted by the Christian sect who lobbied for her release from a 13-year prison sentence, she immediately drops the good-girl act that won her parole and starts getting down to macabre business. Much like Oldboy, there’s a childhood trauma that has her thirsting for revenge, and every act of charity and goodwill figures into a righteous plan to make a kindergarten teacher pay for his sins. Park does more recycling of the earlier films than he should, but the sheer bravado of Lady Vengeance, layered in nested flashbacks and graphically arresting action sequences, forgives the redundancy and excess.

Step 3: Now You’re Ready for Thirst (2009)

A key transitional work between the outré shockers of his early career and the formal elegance and sophistication of his recent work, Thirst is Park’s lusty take on the vampire movie, drawing on themes of guilt and shame that connect to his strict Catholic upbringing. Returning for his third go-around with Park after J.S.A. and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Song Kang-ho plays an earnest priest who agrees to participate in experimental vaccine treatments for a fatal (and extremely gross) disease called the Emmanuel Virus (EV). He nearly dies from EV, but a blood transfusion leads to a miraculous recovery and a reputation among the faithful for healing powers. It also, alas, turns him into a vampire who pursues his unshackled desire for an old friend’s wife (Shin Ha-kyun) and tries to divine morally appropriate sources for his life-sustaining human blood. Park seizes the opportunity to amplify the violence and eroticism built into the vampire movie, but Thirst also digs deep into the moral dilemma of a righteous and faithful man. He still wants to be the priest who does good works, but vampirism ignites the dormant sinful impulses that he had previously repressed. And that devil, implies Park, resides in all of us.

Step 4: Get Mesmerized by Stoker (2013)

For his English-language debut, Park took a welcome swerve toward the classical, squaring his hyper-formal style with the mounting suspense of Alfred Hitchcock, specifically Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt. Just as Shadow of a Doubt pivots on the relationship between a teenage girl and the mysterious uncle that visits from out of town, Stoker creates an uncomfortable tension between a moody loner (Mia Wasikowska) who’s still getting over her father’s death in a car accident and a charismatic stranger (Matthew Goode) who shares her bloodline. Though all signs point to some nefarious ulterior motive, the bond between the two swells to a dangerous infatuation, fueled by the girl’s mother (Nicole Kidman), who drifts along at an emotional remove. Even after discovering the worst about his uncle, she continues to harbor disturbing fantasies about him, culminating in a piano performance that unleashes her nascent sexuality. Stoker is lurid and overheated — as much a vulgarization of Hitchcock as a tribute — but it’s also mesmeric in exploiting an adolescent desire that dances on the razor’s edge.

Step 5: Treat Yourself to the Thrilling Pleasures of The Handmaiden (2016)

In adapting the Welsh novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Park changes the setting from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese colonial rule, which gives historical resonance to the retooled story of a Korean pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) who poses as a servant to drive a wealthy Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) to the madhouse and steal off with her riches. Park works his own magnificent sleight-of-hand in revealing the many layers to this criminal conspiracy, but The Handmaiden is ultimately about the relationship between the two women, which starts as emotional and sexual manipulation, but winds up in a much more complicated (and perverse) place. The film trades deliciously in elaborate cons and double-crosses, but it’s also one of the rare sexy thrillers to let off some genuine heat, aided by the chemistry between the two actresses, a collection of rare erotic literature, and the kinkiest sex toys 1930s Korea had to offer. Perhaps all of The Handmaiden’s pleasures are on the surface, but few surfaces are as pleasurable as this one.

  • Casual viewers are encouraged to get off here and wait to see if Park’s next feature after The Little Drummer Girl continues his recent march toward semi-respectability. Sickos and completists, proceed to Step 6.

Step 6: J.S.A. Joint Security Area (2000), Three… Extremes (2004), I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK (2006)

Though Park had made his debut film eight years earlier with The Moon Is… the Sun’s Dream, a gangster thriller that’s never been available in the west, J.S.A. was one of the formative hits of modern Korean cinema, solidly in line with the action movies coming out of Hong Kong, but with a specific national resonance. In the story of a South Korean soldier (Lee Byung-hun) who may or may not have been involved in the killing of two North Koreans in the DMZ, Park got an early opportunity to test his flair for ornate plotting, but his style was still a work in progress. It’d be hard to identify the film as his in a blind taste test.

There’s no question, on the other hand, of who directed what sequence in the horror anthology Three… Extremes, which encouraged Park and two other directors, China’s Fruit Chan and Japan’s Takashi Miike, to work at their nastiest. Miike’s “Box” is the true keeper of the bunch, a beautiful and mysterious exercise in the macabre from a director known for nasty thrillers like Audition and Ichi the Killer, and Chan’s “Dumplings” is the clear dog, a grotesque tale of aborted fetuses that was inexplicably expanded into a full feature later. Park’s “Cut” is about a film director who assembles a Saw-like contraption involving piano wires, and seems to acknowledge that its own director is just showing off a bit.

Of the curios, none is more peculiar than I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK, a candy-colored romantic comedy that dabbles in science fiction and mental illness. The title says it all: I’m a Cyborg opens with its heroine (Cha Young-goon), a line worker at a radio factory, jamming an electrical wire into her wrist to “recharge,” because she believes herself to be a robot. Her bizarre meet-cute with a kleptomaniac (K-pop icon Rain) who steals soul leads to an institutional romance, but their erratic behavior short-circuits their relationship — at one point literally. The film could perhaps be described as Park’s half-deranged version of a quirky arthouse romance like Amélie, but it’s an oft-forgotten outlier in his career, slight and uncategorizable.

But you’re a fan now, so you have to seek it out.